Budget panel will cover shortfall, Stenger says

By MIKE ANTHONY

Executive Editor

County Council Chairman Steve Stenger says a committee he formed to review County Executive Charlie Dooley’s proposed 2012 budget will “make some fairly bold budget proposals that would cover any shortfall.”

However, Dooley contends that a projected $26 million shortfall cannot be covered without proceeding with his recommended budget for 2012 that calls for the closing of 23 county parks, eliminating 175 jobs and not plowing streets in unincorporated areas of snow when accumulations are 2 inches or less, among other things.

South county parks targeted for closing are Bohrer Park, Black Forest and Ohlendorf. In addition, the Kennedy Recreation Complex pool would be closed.

Nearly all of the roughly 60 speakers who addressed the County Council during a public hearing last month on the proposed 2012 budget delivered the same message: Do not close any county parks nor lay off any Parks and Recreation Department employees.

Stenger, a Democrat from Affton who represents the 6th District, recently appointed a Special Budget Committee to review Dooley’s proposed 2012 budget.

The committee is chaired by County Council Vice Chairman Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant. Councilwoman Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland, is vice chair of the committee, which also includes Stenger and Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country.

During the committee’s first meeting Nov. 21, committee members posed a number of questions to Dooley’s staff about the proposed budget. Dooley was not present for that meeting.

However, Dooley attended the committee’s Nov. 29 meeting and before presenting his staff’s answers to the panel’s questions said, “… I thought it was important for me to come and make a couple statements. I think it’s important for the entire council and the audience to understand. First of all, let me say this: I’ve been an elected official for more than 30 years — started in Northwoods as an alderman. I was mayor of the city of Northwoods for approximately 12 years and I was responsible for the budget for 12 years for the city of Northwoods. It’s a small city, but I had that responsibility — I understand what that responsibility and leadership means.”

Dooley noted he served on the County Council from 1995 to 2003, including a term as council chairman.

“For the next eight years, I’ve been the county executive of St. Louis County,” he said. “And let me say a couple of things. First is that during that time I think I have a clear understanding of what it is, the operation of a government entity, the responsibility of it and what it means to the citizenry. I also recognize that being a mayor or a county executive, you are responsible for the day-to-day operations of that entity every single day, and that is a reference to the budget …”

In formulating a budget, the county executive said, “There are difficult decisions to make. These are the most trying times in this country’s history in my lifetime. It is very difficult. The federal government, the state and local municipalities are all having difficulties. For a number of years, everybody assumed that St. Louis County has deep pockets and guess what? They just throw money out the window. They can make it happen. Well, it’s not so.

“If you had been following the budget process the last several years, this will be the fourth this council has indicated no increase in salaries. That is a red flag to anybody that there are problems with the budget as you move forward. It’s a clear indication that there needs to be some restructuring or some downsizing, which we have done on numerous occasions.

“Second, I think it’s most important to understand, it is a $26 million deficit that we’re making reference to — not $5 million, it’s not $10 million. It is $26 million. That’s a lot of money to make up. We have taken money from the health department on several occasions,” Dooley said, including shifting 1.5 cents of that department’s tax levy to the county’s general funds.

“That cannot go on any longer … I heard three things from the council. Don’t close the parks. Don’t lay off anybody and don’t raise taxes. In my mind, that cannot be done. Something structurally has to be done …”

Regarding the county’s fiscal situation, the county executive later said, “There are no easy answers any longer. They all are difficult and painful. Again, we’re talking about a $26 million deficit. We need to start thinking about that right now. It’s something that cannot be delayed. We’ve got to start working on it. The people of St. Louis County expect us to make those hard decisions and for anyone to say that there is no deficit, there is no crisis, we don’t have to do anything right now is not being responsible …”

Dooley later said he expected a budget “that we can compromise on,” but cited a sense of urgency “because if we change the budget after today, it will be very difficult to pass a budget in the next three to four weeks. So something (urgent) has to be done.

“I have not received anything from the chair about what we need to do, but I have to send in a plan that I think where we could go or we continue some talks about where we could be. Again, from my point of view, we’ve done everything that we can possibly do to inform the council and the chair on our situation as it relates to the budget and the finances of St. Louis County …”

Burkett later said, “… When we first started this process, Councilman Stenger indicated that he could show me where this was and at the time, to be real honest I’m not a budget professional — this is not what I do. I rely on other people and they’ve done a pretty good job of this the 10 years that I’ve been on this council.

“Some things that have happened, I’ve not been real happy about, but they have happened. Councilman Stenger told me that he would show me where this money was. I didn’t realize that his thought was that he would, in essence, as my favorite saying is: Rob Peter to pay Paul. I didn’t know that’s what he was thinking about and that doesn’t satisfy me. It does not satisfy me at all. I hate the thought of doing away with any parks, doing away with any service that the county has been providing. I hate to see that happen,” she continued.

“But I’m also a realist and I appreciate what County Executive Dooley had to say about that. I mean we can live so long in this big fluffy cloud and then we come plummeting down and apparently that’s what’s happening at this point in time. I’m still open to any suggestions that you have, councilman, that will make a difference …”

Stenger interjected, noting he did not propose to “rob Peter to pay Paul.”

Burkett said, “Well you would if you if you take it out of the health (fund tax levy).”

Stenger said, “I didn’t make that suggestion.”

Burkett then asked Stenger where the funds would come from to make up the projected deficit.

Stenger said, “Well, I can tell you first, if you want me to tell you where it is.”

Burkett said, “Yes.”

Stenger noted the county currently has “323 funded, unfilled positions. That’s $21 million right there. That’s $21 million. We had 423 people as of Sept. 7, 2001, that were hired — 241 of those were full-time positions. That’s another $10 million or $12 million. So I’ve just racked up $33 million for you …”

Chief Operating Officer Garry Earls, in information provided to the committee, recommended against eliminating the vacant positions.

“There are currently 301 uncommitted vacancies in the budgeted funds. Of these positions, 71, or nearly 24 percent, are scheduled to be eliminated in the 2012 recommended budget,” Earls wrote.

“To use a broad brush and eliminate all vacant positions is not the most appropriate way to manage our operations. We need to be making proactive decisions about what programs and services we intend to provide in the budget year, and at what service levels. We should not manage our operations based on the random chance that a position becomes vacant.”

In an interview, Stenger told the Call he does not believe St. Louis County is experiencing a fiscal crisis and contended Dooley’s administration has changed the amount of the projected budget shortfall for 2012 “four times.”

“There’s no crisis. We have revenues as of right now that are down 1.2 percent. That’s not a crisis,” Stenger said. “That’s something you can fix with literally a few appropriations here, a few appropriations there. We are going to make some fairly bold budget proposals that would cover any shortfall that they have … They have changed the budget shortfall number four times. Charlie Dooley said it was $10 million … He couldn’t support his numbers, so he came back with $5 million. Then (Dooley’s Senior Policy Adviser) Mike Jones said it was $8 million. Then Charlie Dooley and Mike Jones said that it was $26 million.

“And the reason why they made it $26 million — and when I say they made it $26 million, they did make it $26 million — they didn’t include revenues that would be associated with certain departments. They just left those out. That is not a true deficit. They just left them out of their calculations because they say we can’t use that money anyway, so it should be a deficit. And that’s not how the budget has ever been calculated or budget figures ever been calculated in the history of the world … They’re making up the rules as they go. So they made up the $26 million deficit so the committee that I formed could not possibly close the gap. But I have closed the gap.

“So I have gone beyond any call that he could make about the budget. We can close a $26 million gap and we’re going to do that through basically of them having a realistic estimate of revenue and by removing, among other things — right around 40 cost-cutting measures — and one of those cost cutting measures is very large. It’s in the millions and that is removing the unfilled budgeted positions. Because what happens in a budget, those positions are budgeted for and those expenses are accounted for even though they don’t really exist. You can call them ghost positions. And if you eliminate those ghost positions, you balance the budget, and we’re not even suggesting that he eliminate all of the ghost positions. We’re going to even allow him a little flexibility to do what he needs to do …,” Stenger said.

“We’re going to make a good proposal to him and if they don’t accept that proposal, he’s going to move forward with his budget and it’s not going to get approved. And what will happen is — and I think this is probably the best thing that could happen — we’re going to revert to 2011’s budget without the cuts to parks and we’ll proceed with our parks.

“Now if Charlie Dooley wants to cut the parks, he can still cut the parks. And this is the interesting part about all of this. He does not need County Council approval to cut the parks. His sole goal in everything that he’s done — once again, at taxpayer expense and wasting everyone’s time — he has tied up seven elected officials who should be working on things that matter, and he has tied them up with a political agenda by basically saying the following: I can close parks anytime I want because I’m the county executive. But I want to put this on the council. I want to put it in the budget that I propose so they have to vote on it. And thereby, if they have to vote on it, they’re certainly going to approve my budget …,” Stenger continued.

“He assumed that we would fold and we said ‘no.’ And we maintained our ‘no’ and he is fighting mad about it, which is why you see all these personal attacks about me that are completely unfounded …,” the council chairman said.